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People want real examples of organic church life

Posted by on Jan 26, 2012 in blog links, church life, community | 20 comments

People want real examples of organic church life

A few months ago, I was reading a blog post from someone on the “cutting edge” of the organic church movement – if it’s a movement. The person asked what his readers would like him to write about, and I said, “Right about real life example of what it means to be part of an ‘organic church’ and how it affects things like gathering together, discipleship, giving, evangelism, teaching, etc.” (paraphrase)

Earlier this week, Dan at “Cerulean Sanctum” asked “Is Organic House Church a Myth?” Why would Dan ask that question? Because he sees so few real life examples in his city. He has been reading through some of Frank Viola’s book, and he loves the descriptions that he finds there. But, why can’t he find them in real life?

Dan writes:

I say this because the more I attempt to locate the type of organic/house church that Viola says has been blessing his life for the last few decades, the more it seems like the fabled destination of another famous musical, Brigadoon

I live just outside a metropolitan area of 2.2 million people that is heavily churched. When Christian pollsters and church resource magazines publish info about influential institutional churches, this area contains a disproportionately large number of them. Which is why I continue to scratch my head at the utter lack in such an area of anything resembling Viola’s ethereal organic church. Hasn’t anyone burned out of those institutional megachurches and fled to the supposed refuge of an organic church?

Reading the testimonials of organic church members included in Viola’s books makes my heart ache. But like so many tales one hears in the American Church today, it seems like those beautiful stories are happening in some hazy, distant place, almost like Narnia, except even harder to find.

I understand much of Dan’s frustration, and many of my readers have shared the same frustrations and difficulties in finding the kind of shared life in Christ that “organic church” books describe.

Now, I know that the type of shared life that Viola (and others) describe exist, because I experience it every day. I also know that this kind of church life can be found among the members of more traditional or institutional churches. However, that doesn’t help others who are seeking fellowship with others in this way. It still seems elusive.

As you can probably tell from my previous paragraph, I’m not interested in some new model of church that is labeled “organic church” as opposed to some other brand or model of church. Instead, I’m interested in brothers and sisters in Christ sharing their lives together in Jesus Christ in such a way that he is able to work through them as he desires – often unorchestrated, unplanned, unrehearsed, and unscripted.

Unfortunately, this kind of life cannot happen (only) in a church gathering… even an “organic church” gathering with open participation. This kind of life happens day in and day out when people spend time together, care about one another, give and help one another, and serve others together.

To be honest, I’ve found this kind of “church” more difficult to locate than “organic church.” There are several websites that list local “organic churches” or “house churches” in your area. However, tacking the label “organic church” or “house church” onto a group – or even meeting in a house or having an open participatory meeting – does not indicate that the people involved actually share their lives with one another.

However, these groups do exist. I’ve communicated with many people who live like this day in and day out with other Christians. I’ve even had a few opportunities to get together with representatives of different groups who gather around our area.

But… I still agree with Dan. This type of church life is difficult to find, and extremely elusive – even where it does exist.

Why do you think it is so difficult to find “organic church life”?

(By the way, I will offer some of my own answers to that question in tomorrow morning’s blog post.)


20 Comments

  1. 1-26-2012

    In my many years walking the post-institutional wilderness, I understand the pain.

    However, what I have come to learn is that we likely experience organic church life much more than we realize. The more we look for it on our own, the more it gets away from the original (whatever the original may be.. it is much bigger and more awesome than I could even imagine)

    Christ just IS. And, His actual Body (all of us as His Church) just IS.

    Swanny

  2. 1-26-2012

    Interesting that Frank Viola responded in a comment and said almost the same thing you said above:

    “My experience has been that it’s rather easy to find a home group (“house church”), but it’s not so easy to find the kind of expression of church life that I’ve experienced and have described in my books.”

    So it appears to be pretty common

  3. 1-26-2012

    Let me give such an example…but as an “organic” church, by definition, it’s hard to nail down to somthing strictly defined.

    I’m currently interning at a “traditional” church near me that is different in some very subtle ways. First of all, there are traditional worship services in a traditional building (although, one of the two services isn’t exacrtl “traditional”, they call it contemporary). The church belongs to a traditional denomination (Mennonite) with pastors and an elder board and all that sort of stuff.

    So, what makes it organic? As I said, it’s hard to nail down because of what it is. Essentially, the church as a gathering of believers extends WAY beyond the Sunday morning experience. There are so many things going on within the congregation that it seems crazy. People gather together during the week, not in small group Bible studies, but just because they like to gather. In these gatherings, people care for each other and look out for each other. They pray together, laugh together, and (most importantly, actually) they eat together. Something about gathering around food connects people in a way that goes beyond anything else.

    In these gatherings, “iron sharpens iron” as they take the teachings of Sunday morning and apply them. They don’t pile more teaching on. They get enough as it is but there needs to be places to actually apply them and these gatherings are where it happens. As they do so, they find out that there are things going on in their neighborhoods and such that they find they can interact with and, as a group, get involved. It’s amazing how much outreach ministry and service work happens by this church without a single committee or budget item in their church structure.

    If you were to look up this church online, nothing about it says “organic”…but they are. My supervisor looks at it as a garden where seed beds are prepared, things are planted, and stuff is allowed to grow. The Sunday morning stuff is the greenhouse for somec, but eventually the plants get out of the greenhouse and end up growing naturally outside.

    It’s scary, it’s messy, it seems so counter-intuitive in that there’s not any leader dictating “do this, do that” but, instead the leader is teaching by example and training by doing it and inviting others along for the ride. When questions arise, leadership responds, but they only teach and train Kingdom stuff while allowing the “church” do be led.

    My supervisor at this church explains it as the difference between a fenced in pasture, keeping the herd contained, and a large ranch. In the pasture, the fence defines the herd, where they go, and provides protection. The herd is passive in this.

    On a large ranch, there are no fences. Instead, watering holes are setup where the herde congregates. Protection? You get that many cows gathered around the watering hole and no wolves would dare come near because they would be trampled. Without a fence, more cows can come to the watering hole and get refreshed, fed, and protected.

    Christ is the watering hole, the church is the heard, the leaders are the bulls that bring the herd to the hole.

    I hope I’ve done justice to explaining this experience. I’m still learning how they operate through my internship, but this is what I see “organic church” to be like…not some form or plan or structured movement, but a natural gathering and outgrowth of the Spirit bringing people to the watering hole of Christ.

  4. 1-26-2012

    Swanny,

    I think you hit on a huge point. If someone is looking for organic church life, they must understand that it will not look like the traditional church package. (Interestingly, in my experience, organic church life may be found within the traditional church package… but it’s usually in spite of, not because of, that packaging.)

    Arthur,

    I like the way that you are looking for organic church life.

    Robert,

    Thank you very much for the example! We need more and more of these. Has the “traditional church” modified the way they gather together (or anything else) in order to reinforce or take advantage of the organic church life found among the people there?

    -Alan

  5. 1-26-2012

    FYI I am that Supervisor that Rob is talking about…feels weird to read back what you have in a discussion at 11:30pm on Tuesday night.

    Over the past 3 to 4 years I have been working within an institutional model of church, or as Cole wrote a 2.0 church (Church 3.0 book…a MUST READ on this subject matter).

    Everything Rob spoke is to what we are doing in our experimentation of growing the Gospel, instead of planting churches…

    Over the past 2 years we had to really redefine the purpose of home gatherings and gathering outside churches. I would love to say that we just sprinkle some Holy Spirit Fairy dust and make the changes needed. The issue is that when you are a transfusional church, a church that is trying to birth out new works in an organic matter, its a process of growing.

    Think of a garden as Rob was mentioning. We are tossing some tomatoes out of the garden in hopes of seeing what takes root. This has been everything from a young adult gathering in the neighborhood, youth ministry, after school programs, inter-generational group meeting in a retirement community, community disc golf course/club, and soon to be launching a community center in another town girded by an “organic” model church.

    In time I believe things will continue to grow and change. The tomato plants that were grown outside the garden will continue to grow and swall up the garden…or as a virus spreads and infects so will the Holy Spirit.

    I would also begin to ask the question…if you cannot find an organic model around you…are you being called by God to start planting where you are? In the process organic starts with asking the Lord to show you where He is present and wishes you to till and be a part of the garden He is growing…

  6. 1-26-2012

    Scott,

    Thank you for the follow-up! My focus on this blog is primarily about the church gathering. How have you seen this “infection” spread to your church gathering? How has the gathering changed to foster the organic church life that you’re seeing/describing or because of the organic church life that you’re seeing/describing?

    -Alan

  7. 1-26-2012

    After being involved in many traditional churches and two simple fellowships, I am extremely close to abandoning the search for community in “church” and taking it wherever I can find it.

  8. 1-26-2012

    Fred,

    You said, “I am extremely close to abandoning the search for community in “church” and taking it wherever I can find it.” Wherever you find community among other believers, you’ve also found church, regardless of what it might or might not be called.

    -Alan

  9. 1-26-2012

    Alan – I think the biggest difficulty is you can’t advertise ‘culture and relationship’.

    You can say all you like on your website, but until I visit, I don’t know the people, and can’t ‘experience’ the community.

    I am sure it was you who just recently quoted Bonhoeffer – when we get to a church, it isn’t going to be perfect, but it is our job to get in and get on with it (my bad paraphrase).

    Though of course in my experience I can’t find a church like this either. It’s very difficult! the one we attend right now has some element of ‘community’ outside of the formal church, but it is way less than I have experienced elsewhere, for example when I lived in Denver. I know the right place will come along, it is just being part of something till it comes here or I find it :D

    Drewe

  10. 1-26-2012

    Hi all, Im from down under (Australia)
    I have read most of Franks books on organic church life. I havent been attending an institutional church (came from both baptist and pentecostal circles) for over 3 years now. We are striving toward gathering like the following;

    “The Organic Church. This is a living, vibrant face to face community that has no other pursuit but Jesus Christ Himself. Members are being “built together” into Christ the Head, they are experiencing the cross of Jesus, they are discovering how to live by His indwelling life, and they are fleshing out the biblical vision that the church is the family of God. Such churches are a testimony to the world, to one another, and to the principalities and powers that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed alive – alive enough to be Head over His own church. Christ is the church’s centrality. He is her passion. He is, as it were, her obsession. Members specialize in nothing – except Christ. Their goal is to make Him visible in their community. Their Hallmark is their growing desire is their growing knowledge of the Lord. Their testimony is their openness to all of God’s people, their humility, and their unmistakable love for one another.” – paraphrased summary from Frank Viola’s books

    It hasnt happened yet for us as Frank depicts but I know it will. I know of many ‘christ-centred’ families and followers that no longer attend church for a whole pile of reasons. Primarily because the church they attend, seems to have lost sight of Jesus and being built up together as the body of Christ. They are turning more into’inward looking’ sects and have lost their kingdom view (Im generalising but have experienced this in the few churches I have been attending over the last 15 years)

    Its early days yet, but we are seeing crowds of christians here in Australia move away from traditional ‘pulpit-pew’ churches and are attempting to gather in simple-church style gatherings. The picture Viola creates is very unique and it does speak of a functional new testament church that is vibrant and living in Christ.

    The biggest hinderance to people gathering as the ‘organic expression of the body of christ’ is the instutional mindset they have spent most of their life being taught to function like and within. My understanding is that people need to go through a ‘wilderness’ type experience to de-institutionalise themselves from traditional church thinking and practices. It hard to refocus on new testament expression of church when we have grown up in our times and its embedded within our thinking.

    I am already seeing the fruits of the spirit in several groups we are attending, they are refocusing their lives on Christ and re-learning to encourage and love-another. Finally we are starting to see the gifts of the spirit being used how 1 Corinthians intended, founded on love and unity in Christ Jesus. I am praying we will soon have multiple gatherings that will be equipped to function like Viola’s books. Hopefully the landscape of the way we do ‘church’ will change forever!

    Note. In no way do I mean to be-little or attack institutional church goers, I believe God works in and through all believers who are committed to Christ… I am only speaking of the ‘ekklesia’ above.
    God Bless. Daniel

  11. 1-27-2012

    “Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” Matthew 9:17

    My heart aches for Dan as he has obviously heard about new wine, and longs for it, but can’t find a wineskin containing it. I would offer that there a few reasons for these fellowships/expression of the chruch being so hard to find. May it not be so for long.

    1) Although many thirst for the new wine of fellowship and true koinonia because the Holy Spirit is revealing it to them, drawing them to it, and showing them there is more than the platform to spectator personality and teaching driven expressions of the church they have experienced, they are afraid to just begin such a new wine expression with a few others like themselves under His leading and Headship. This requires trusting Him to provide the architecture/wineskin. If they have moved from the “believer only” status (one who comes to Jesus/ and goes to Church to get… saved, fixed, fed and filled, or his kids made perfect) to a “disciple” status (one who understand he does not come to Jesus to get, but to give himself to Him, one who desires to leave everything else and follow Him, to be trained and then give all they are and all they have to His mission and eternal purposes. One who wants, not to “go” to church, but the “be” the church, His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all – Eph.1:21-23) then they are probably ready to establish a house of peace (Matthew 10, or Luke 10) in their home, or the home of others. Fear holds them back because they have been institutionalized to think that information/education is more important than inspiration. They think they must have it all together, all “how to” questions answered first, and be ordained by some organization. There would be more “organic” expressions if the called and inspired would just go ahead and leave the captivity of the Babylonian mans plans systems and follow the Holy Spirits leading into God’s plan within the bounds of what they see in the scriptures (Acts), and with, perhaps, some basic help in what Viola, Simson,or other apostolic men of the day and in their area (like Alan and a number of others)can offer.

    2) Unfortunately in the organic/simple/house church arena there are still far too many who are building their own little kingdom/church (man’s plan-I’m doing this and pray you will bless it), instead of working under His direction (God’s plan)to co-labor with Him in building His church (Psalm 127:1) and establish His Kingdom in it. In most cases this happens because the new wine is poured into some form of the old wineskin. Old ecclesiology,government structure, mission architecture, and more that has been based in man’s plans. When this happens the result is the Kingdom trying to be stuffed into a Babylonian system, and the incompatibility results in a burst skin and mess and lacks the authenticity that Dan, and others like him, thirst for. Generally they find fellowship built only around meetings and personalities or one man’s gift and rote formats and programs. Disillusioned they think the new wine doesn’t really exist.

    3) Actually a subset of point two. When we cease building the old wineskin way and we build with His plan, networks of simple/organic/house church need to be established across cities and regions. This is based in a vision, not just for building “our group”, but a missional mindset to grow/establish/plant other groups. Perhaps several hundred across our city or region! I personally believe we are in the “period of the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:19-21)and that the LORD is about to redefine and then restore the church in a way we have not experienced or imagined. (This is not just “revival” or “refreshing”, it is a God initiated restoration, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah called Judah to when she was captive in Babylon.) The strength and power of a missional organic/simple/house church apostolic architecture is not just adding people by one and two at a time, but groups duplicating themselves resulting in growth by multiplication, not addition. For this to happen we can’t focus on just “our group” and drawing people to it. That is the old wineskin approach. We must be focused on building/planting other houses of peace/groups and networking them together, and being in relationship with other like minded apostolic brothers/groups in our region to do so. I think this is the biblical new testament template.

    If we stop the man’s plan approach of “here is what I’m/we’re doing, Lord please bless it” and instead get His plan, His blueprint, first and build from that, under the Headship of Jesus and the administration of the Holy Spirit, we will see exponential growth in these networks. This is already happening in much of what we call the 10/40 window (China, India, and some Islamic countries). I hear reports that what began in the church under persecution, is now burgeoning with growth of new wine in new wineskins as the work of Jesus in His church is established and preserved, even in the face of cultural and governmental hostility. It has been far more effective than traditional missions programs to the same areas.

  12. 1-27-2012

    Wow! A very interesting discussion.

    I think what people mean by ‘organic church’ is what I’d call the life of the Holy Spirit or the fruitful flow of love that He produces amongst us. I think it’s unhelpful to box that by defining it as a Church model in itself, a ‘new way of doing it’. As Robert Martin’s example explains – ‘organic Church’ is possible in any format of Church.

    To balance this Jesus talked about new rather than old wineskins being suitable for new wine in Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5. This was just after being asked why his disciples didn’t follow some established religious rules & expectations. One interpretation is that the wineskin stands for structure & established culture and the wine is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the participatory and fruitful life of Jesus).

    I believe the fruitful flow of love that Jesus brews amongst us far outshines any Church structure, and sometimes the wineskin needs ripping up because it has become so brittle and worn that it no longer gives room to accommodate spontaneous and free ‘organic’ growth in the Church.

  13. 1-27-2012

    Drewe,

    You said, “I think the biggest difficulty is you can’t advertise ‘culture and relationship’.” Exactly. Of course, advertisements can claim “culture and relationships,” but they don’t always deliver what they promise. It reminds me of the church that was very friendly… I know it was friendly because it was printed on their bulletin.

    Daniel,

    Thanks for the great comment and for sharing part of your story. Yes, when we move in one direction, it is often seen as an attack or a condemnation of those who are not moving in that direction. I don’t read your comment like that at all. Stick with it… or rather, stick with one another.

    Randy,

    In my latest post, “Why is it so difficult to find organic church life“, I look at several things that make it difficult to find the kind of organic church life that Dan talks about. You bring up so additional – and very important – points. Thank you!

    Aidan,

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on my latest post, “Why is it so difficult to find organic church life?” I covered some of the same points that you raised.

    -Alan

  14. 1-27-2012

    Alan,

    Appreciate you taking up this cause.

    My frustrations in this issue’s vein are numerous: church leaders, community, encouraging gifts, outward focus, disciple-making, and general discernment. All seem to be notably lacking, and I’m tired of the same old “blame the person raising the issues” junk that seems so prevalent among the status quo maintainers.

    My biggest frustration of all are those who immediately toss back that the church is full of sinners so we’ll never have a perfect church. While true at the extreme, this excuse serves only as that: a reason to never push beyond the borders we’ve erected for traditional church meetings and church life.

    But what is jockeying for a close, frustration second is the response from “organic” church proponents who seem to take some sort of odd pleasure in announcing all the benefits of their group, but with a “just try to find us” mentality. If such groups are as vital as they say, why the cloak and dagger? Why hide their great light under a bushel? I find it bizarre, honestly.

    For all the oddities and the swerving from the models established in Acts, the most disturbing aspect of this quest goes back to asking, “If maintaining a biblically based church is so enormously difficult (as the naysayers are quick to point out), what does that say about the power of the Gospel to transform you and me? If we can’t get our churches at least 95% of the way there, what hope do we have to live any kind of life that resembles the NT model of what a Christian (and his or her church) should be like?”

  15. 1-27-2012

    Dan,

    Thanks for kicking off this discussion, and for taking part here. I think you make some valid points. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my follow up post “Why is it so difficult to find organic church life?

    -Alan

  16. 4-15-2012

    Just a little something to add. About 6 months ago I stepped ‘away from the traditional for a time as directed by the Spirit. It was a decision that I made for my family through a time of fasting. I had no clue as to what the direction that God would be sending me in and it is still a bit cloudy. My wife and I did the youth ministry at our church and that crumbled due to some other church split issues at the same time that I believe God told me to spent a time fasting while the Spirit speak to me. The split happened as God directed me to step away and was unknown to me until after I mde my decision known.
    I said all that to say this. I felt the leading of the Holy Spirit to continue to do youth meetings in my church. Then I began to see that God intended for the people to sit and enjoy a meal together and fellowship. We began to do this with the youth. Now in a small country area we are drawing more youth into our kitchen than ever before. Just a free meal and friendship. We are lifting each other up and showing the love of God to each other. So to anyone that is looking around and saying I can’t find a home church in their area, it is possible you are the reason you can’t find one. Is that not possible? Perhaps God’s intentions are to use you? I still don’t know all that God has planned in this but I do know this: God has it all figured out! Get out of the books about ‘Organic or Home or Traditional churches and get on your knees and give up a few meals. Perhaps together we each doing what God has called us to do we can change this world! Press on Brothers and Sisters. Let us make a difference.

  17. 11-20-2012

    It is important for one to get the concept very clearly.

    One is not supposed to be looking for a church group but living one. True Church is born naturally as God leads not as man plans and organizes.

    When one goes shopping for a church group, then it becomes sort of a club to belong or to study but not a life to live. The Holy Spirit is very much ALIVE and will guide when sought not looked for by any believer.

  18. 2-21-2013

    In a world where we all want immediate results, it requires patience to see the type of community emerge described by Viola and even in the New Testament. It’s easy for people to visit a house church and say “but they don’t really experience the type of community we see in the Bible,” or “no one even called me this week to see how i was doing!”

    I think we all would do well to appreciate the baby steps people do take by simply involving themselves in organic church. To me simple/organic church is about a journey toward real community and intentionally removing the barriers that prevent natural community from happening. We should not expect intimate community to happen over night–especially if our organic church consists of new friendships.

    What does happen over night, however, is that you put yourself in a position to really be involved in others lives and this is no small matter. My church “family” now consists of people who spend more time interacting with me and my children than my “best friends” and even immediate family do. Could we be closer and more involved in each others lives? Sure. We have a long way to go to be sure, but by simply heading down the organic church path, we have taken a baby step. It may not be impressive from the outside looking in or even compare to what the leading authors write about and describe, but I see that it s a start and it is making a difference.

  19. 2-21-2013

    Gavin,

    Thanks for continuing this discussion. You’ve definitely brought up some good points, especially the time and openness involved in living in community in Christ with one another. I also agree that that community may not seem “impressive” from the outside.

    -Alan

  20. 5-9-2013

    Paraphrased, with apologies to the author: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there is Organic Church in the midst of you.”
    If church was a place or a time, I’d go back to the designer to complain that He forgot to install a watch and compass in my forehead.
    But happily, If Jesus is in you and me, and we’re together, we’re church.
    How can anyone improve on that?
    blessings
    Greg

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